Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Food Waste Delusions

A couple months ago the New York Times convened a conference "Food for Tomorrow: Farm Better. Eat Better. Feed the World."  Keynotes predictably included Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan.  It featured many food movement activists, famous chefs, and a whole lot of journalists. Folks talked about how we need to farm more sustainably, waste less food, eat more healthfully and get policies in place that stop subsidizing unhealthy food and instead subsidize healthy food like broccoli.

Sounds good, yes? If you're reading this, I gather you're familiar with the usual refrain of the food movement.  They rail against GMOs, large farms, processed foods, horrid conditions in confined livestock operations, and so on.  They rally in favor of small local farms who grow food organically, free-range antibiotic free livestock, diversified farms, etc.  These are yuppies who, like me, like to shop at Whole Foods and frequent farmers' markets.  

This has been a remarkably successful movement.  I love how easy it has become to find healthy good eats, bread with whole grains and less sugar, and the incredible variety and quality of fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables and meat.  Whole Paycheck Foods Market has proliferated and profited wildly.  Even Walmart is getting into the organic business, putting some competitive pressure on Whole Foods. (Shhhh! --organic isn't necessarily what people might think it is.)

This is all great stuff for rich people like us. And, of course, profits.  It's good for Bittman's and Pollan's book sales and speaking engagements.  But is any of this really helping to change the way food is produced and consumed by the world's 99%?  Is it making the world greener or more sustainable?  Will any of it help to feed the world in the face of climate change?

Um, no.  

Sadly, there were few experts in attendance that could shed scientific or pragmatic light on the issues.  And not a single economist or true policy wonk in sight. Come on guys, couldn't you have at least invited Ezra Klein or Brad Plummer?  These foodie journalists at least have some sense of incentives and policy. Better, of course, would be to have some real agricultural economists who actually know something about large-scale food production and policies around the world. Yeah, I know: BORING!

About agricultural polices: there are a lot of really bad ones, and replacing them with good policies might help.  But a lot less than you might think from listening to foodies.  And, um, we do subsidize broccoli and other vegetables, fruits, and nuts.  Just look at the water projects in the West. 

Let me briefly take on one issue du jour: food waste.  We throw away a heck of a lot of food in this country, even more than in other developed countries.  Why?  I'd argue that it's because food is incredibly cheap in this country relative to our incomes.  We are the world's bread basket.  No place can match California productivity in fruit, vegetables and nuts.  And no place can match the Midwest's productivity in grains and legumes.  All of this comes from remarkable coincidence of climate, geography and soils, combined with sophisticated technology and gigantic (subsidized) canal and irrigation systems in the West.  

Oh, we're fairly rich too.  

Put these two things together and, despite our waste, we consume more while spending less on food than any other country.  Isn't that a good thing?  Europeans presumably waste (a little) less because food is more scarce there, so people are more careful and less picky about what they eat. Maybe it isn't a coincidence that they're skinnier, too.

What to do? 

First, it's important to realize that there are benefits to food waste.  It basically means we get to eat very high quality food and can almost always find what we want where and when we want it.  That quality and convenience comes at a cost of waste.  That's what people are willing to pay for.  

If anything, the foodism probably accentuates preference for high quality, which in turn probably increases waste.  The food I see Mark Bittman prepare is absolutely lovely, and that's what I want.  Don't you?

Second, let's suppose we implemented a policy that would somehow eliminate a large portion of the waste.  What would happen?  Well, this would increase the supply of food even more.  And sinse we have so much already, and demand for food is very inelastic, prices would fall even lower than they are already.  And the temptation to substitute toward higher quality--and thus waste more food--would be greater still.  

Could the right policies help?  Well, maybe.  A little. The important thing here is to have a goal besides simply eliminating waste.  Waste itself isn't problem. It's not an externality like pollution.  That goal might be providing food for homeless or low income families.  Modest incentive payments plus tax breaks might entice more restaurants, grocery stores and others to give food that might be thrown out to people would benefit from it.  This kind of thing happens already and it probably could be done on a larger scale. Even so, we're still going to have a lot of waste, and that's not all bad. 

What about correcting the bad policies already in place?  Well, water projects in the West are mainly sunk costs.  That happened a long time ago, and water rights, as twisted as they may be, are more or less cemented in the complex legal history.   Today, traditional commodity program support mostly takes the form of subsidized crop insurance, which is likely causing some problems.  The biggest distortions could likely be corrected with simple, thoughtful policy tweaks, like charging higher insurance premiums to farmers who plant corn after corn instead of corn after soybeans.  But mostly it just hands cash (unjustly, perhaps) to farmers and landowners.  The odds that politicians will stop handing cash to farmers is about as likely as Senator James Inhofe embracing a huge carbon tax.  Not gonna happen.

But don't worry too much.  If food really does get scarce and prices spike, waste will diminish, because poorer hungry people will be less picky about what they eat.

Sorry for being so hard on the foodies.  While hearts and forks are in the right places, obviously I think most everything they say and write is naive.  Still, I think the movement might actually do some good.  I like to see people interested in food and paying more attention to agriculture.  Of course I like all the good eats.  And I think there are some almost reasonable things being said about what's healthy and not (sugar and too much red meat are bad), even if what's healthy has little to do with any coherent strategy for improving environmental quality or feeding the world.  

But perhaps the way to change things is to first get everyones' attention, and I think foodies are doing that better than I ever could.


  1. Its really cool information you shared here and I love it a lot this info.

  2. You write, "They rail against GMOs, large farms, processed foods, horrid conditions in confined livestock operations, and so on. They rally in favor of small local farms who grow food organically, free-range antibiotic free livestock, diversified farms, etc. These are yuppies who, like me, like to shop at Whole Foods and frequent farmers' markets."

    Could that be any more of a caricature? And it isn't saved by the "like me" self-effacement.

    Even so, you are quite right throughout about the need for balance in the ag conversation, though I think the points on waste vs. supply economics argument is strained. I see that as more as a production/transportation/distribution efficiency question.

    The food waste area that interests me most is the waste 'stream' question/challenge. The endgame for unconsumed foodstuffs should not involve landfills.


  3. A quality article, containing much useful information.